On 26 May 2016, the Centre for Humanities Research at UWC convened a discussion on ‘The University and Its Worlds’. The panel featured distinguished international scholars from the University of California, Berkeley, David Theo Goldberg, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler and leading decolonial philosopher, Achille Mbembe.

Goldberg cautioned against the notion of ‘uber-isation’ of the university where customer satisfaction surveys and evaluative data are overused to customise the ‘service’ that universities provide. This focus is in direct contrast to more immediate and local demands to bring social justice issues into the intellectual project.

Brown highlighted the plight of the neo-liberal university, fast eroded by the market through ratings and rankings. She highlighted the distinction between privatisation and financialisation of universities, the latter focused on securing and maintaining shareholder interest in the long term. Universities are prone to being used as mechanisms for shareholders and profiteers to invest in universities as assets. This has a direct impact on universities’ race to upgrade their status on world ranking stakes.

Butler drew attention to the militarisation of university campuses where students are seen as “enemy combatants on domestic soil”. The presence of police on campuses interfered with students’ right to protest. But Butler was quick to caution that violent protests might be counterproductive to the very struggles we are engaged in.

Mbembe (disappointingly) did not talk at all on decolonisation but continued with the theme of universities as financial mechanisms. He pointed out that university expenditure in SA is no more that 0.7 percent of GDP. He urged government and vice chancellors at South African universities to invest in a recapitalisation of the university so that they become hubs of African excellence, to compete in the global arena. Mbembe ended by declaring that he is a social-democrat.

The UWC panel raises important questions (rather than solutions) for how teaching and learning will be conceptualized in an over-capitalised future university. As universities might become more reliant on external funding and rankings, and as we fall prey to neo-liberal masters, we might increasingly be encouraged to teach to a particular type of student; one who can increase the university’s shareholder status in the market. It might also mean that certain kinds of lecturers will be employed to develop this kind of graduate, much needed by the market. Students excluded from university participation as a result of structural constraints such as inability to pay fees will slowly become more invisible in future cohorts.

Does this also mean that new and creative ideas that don’t fit into the ‘uber’ modality will not be supported via research and other funding opportunities? This has direct implications for the responsive teaching innovations we need to grapple with contextual challenges – responses that defy survey and customer evaluations. How does this affect us as AD practitioners in our specific and local contexts? How might our roles change based on this uber-model? Can we resist the neo-liberal hold on universities through a different pedagogy in the classroom? Perhaps a stronger social pedagogy? Or is it too late?

Dr Kasturi Behari-Leak

HELTASA Deputy Chair/ May 2016

Supplementary article: https://uwcjournal.wordpress.com/articles/